Deputy Editor Kirstie Sutherland reports on a magnitude 4.4 earthquake which has affected parts of the West Midlands, including UoB's main campus.Written by Kirstie Sutherland on 17th February 2018
UoB Achieves Gold In New TEF University Ratings
The University of Birmingham (UoB) shares the top step with forty-three HE institutions as critics claim the new teaching excellence framework (TEF) has faltered under starter’s orders
Released Thursday morning, the first ever TEF university standings have awarded UoB with a gold rating for 2017, the highest possible position. The university joins only eight gold recipients of the twenty-one Russell Group universities to take part in the government’s scheme, however, as respected institutions such as the London School of Economics, Southampton and Liverpool were awarded the lowest bronze rating.
The gold rating, which is already on display on UoB’s website, signifies that adjudicators judged the quality of undergraduate teaching to be among the highest in the country. According to this framework, the university stands alongside Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Imperial College London and thirty-five non-Russell Group universities at the top of the TEF rankings.
Aimed at improving standards of academic teaching across the UK in the long-term, the government introduced the TEF assessment this year as another method of ranking the quality of degree programmes, as opposed to commercial league tables such as the Complete University Guide.
“It is also planned that the TEF will be directly tied to tuition fees from 2020, meaning that universities achieving a good result in the standings may be able to raise their fees above the £9000 base rate in line with inflation
It is also planned that the TEF will be directly tied to tuition fees from 2020, meaning that universities achieving a good result in the standings may be able to raise their fees above the £9000 base rate in line with inflation. The government believes that the quality of programmes would therefore be reflected in the fees. Participation in the TEF is completely voluntary and doesn’t affect universities’ funding, but it is the only route for institutions to seek fees higher than the current cap of £9000 in the future.
As this is the first year of the framework, the government is viewing the results as part of a trial, with the plan to review the metrics and scoring systems over the coming weeks.
In its current form, the TEF takes three out of its six metrics – those regarding quality of teaching, assessment and academic support - from the National Student Survey (NSS), which has been subject to heavy criticism and suffered a boycott from the National Union of Students (NUS) this academic year. The remaining three metrics are sourced elsewhere, and cover dropout rates and graduate prospects (for which there are two).
Adjudicators then judge a university on each of the six metrics, awarding either a positive or negative flag corresponding to whether the institution reached a benchmark level. This level varies between universities as it is based on the data from their specific student population. Adjudicators can also award a double flag for especially good or bad results for a certain metric.
In order to achieve a gold rating, a university must be awarded three or more positive flags and no negative flags. Bronze ratings are given to those universities with two or more negative flags, and silver is awarded to all others. Further adjustments then take place according to a written statement from the university to the TEF, the testing of the six metrics focussed on specific minority demographics and a final ‘descriptor’ check before a university is officially classified as gold, silver or bronze.
“Eastwood: 'We put students at the heart of what we do and I am pleased that this has been recognised once again'
UoB’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood, has welcomed the golden result, stating, ‘The University of Birmingham has long recognised the importance of research-led teaching, independent study and peer-to-peer learning, which are central to our philosophy […] We put students at the heart of what we do and I am pleased that this has been recognised once again’.
Nevertheless, the VC has also urged caution over the results, saying, ‘We recognise, however, that the TEF itself requires further work to ensure that it is robust enough to account for the global standing of UK higher education and adds real value for students. It will take time to develop the TEF into the assessment framework that teaching deserves and we are keen to continue to engage with the Government to help to develop future iterations’.
Eastwood’s concerns regarding the validity of the TEF results at such an early stage have been echoed across the sector, but some critics have gone further, such as Sir Christopher Snowden, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, who called the framework ‘fundamentally flawed’ following the announcement of his institution’s bronze rating, which he plans to appeal. Snowden stated that the TEF has ‘no value or credibility’ due to elements of subjectivity that he saw in the judging of the benchmark level. Since these levels are not even across the board but rather based on each university’s student population, Southampton’s VC said that the current methodology means that it is ‘incredibly easy for some institutions to exceed their benchmarks’, whilst others are left trailing behind levels that are set ‘so high’.
Guild President Ellie Keiller was also critical of the TEF, taking to social media to say, ‘I know it sounds good because it's shiny and gold, but I've got to tell you, it's not what it seems’.
“Keiller: 'I know it sounds good because it's shiny and gold, but I've got to tell you, it's not what it seems'
Keiller continued by evaluating the assessment’s methodology and the government’s future plans to tie the ratings to university tuition fees, stating, ‘I really believe that charging more for better education will drive a divide in society between the rich who can afford better education and the poor who can't.
‘[…] Further issues are that the metrics on which this 'gold' has been decided are inherently flawed... the TEF is supposed to measure teaching quality but how it does this is through your NSS answers and your graduate earning salary... so to all you nurses & teachers, it's basically saying your careers aren't worth going into or aren't valuable to society and that you've not had a good education […] now, I don't know about you but that doesn't sound right to me!’
However, Universities Minister Jo Johnson has since defended the government’s new scheme, saying, ‘The teaching excellence framework is refocusing the sector’s attention on teaching, putting in place incentives that will raise standards across the sector and giving teaching the same status as research’.
Out of the 134 universities which chose to participate in the trial TEF this year, 43 achieved gold, 67 silver and 24 bronze. However, with the subsequent methodological review may come significant changes to the rule book. If this is the case, then, in Ascot terms, next year’s race to the TEF gold could see some firm favourites return to the mix, all in time for the adjudicators’ photo finish.